"Internet Addiction" Demystified

What is "internet addiction"? A bit of a misnomer, to start. Back when it was first noticed that people were having issues with internet usage resembling offline behavioral addictions, expert opinion branched into two: either the internet itself was addictive in nature, or it was serving as a facilitator for actual addictive behaviors (many of which can also be found offline, like gambling or shopping). To date, the latter explanation has garnered the most research support. Ubiquitous but still offering a level of discretion, the internet is a naturally convenient gateway for addictive behaviors. In the workplace, the slippery slope often starts with internet misuse, which typically falls into five subtypes: 2

1. Computer Gaming

2. Information Overload (excessive web surging or database scouring)

3. Net Compulsions (e.g. gambling, shopping, day trading)

4. Cyber Sexual Behavior

5. Cyber Social/Relationship Behavior

When excessive misuse escalates into full-fledged addiction, it has all the usual components like obsession, loss of control, mood modification, tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms. It also has many of the same potential negative impacts for businesses, including reduced productivity, hampered employee morale, strained "in real life" relationships, and heightened risks, particularly regarding legal liability and IT security. It has been suggested that internet misuse alone is a significant systems risk that many organizations are insufficiently addressing.3

What Employers Can Do

For many employers, managing internet misuse and addiction can feel like a curve ball. It's a relatively new issue and one that has not yet worked itself into frequent mainstream HR conversation. Plus, for most of us, the internet is a perfectly benign necessity! As with most addictive behaviors, there's still a lot of stigma and confusion around the topic. Fortunately, there are options out there to help you tackle both internet misuse and addiction. Below are a few tips to get you started.

Tip #1: Pioneer with Policy

Internet misuse is a relatively new issue, so many employees will have no idea what expectations are unless they are clearly communicated and enforced. A thorough internet use policy sets clear expectations around work usage, personal usage, and prohibited usage, and explains how compliance will be monitored and enforced.

Tip #2: Monitor and Block 

Although putting a sound policy in place is an essential protocol, some research suggests it's the least effective measure to quelling internet misuse. The most effective? Monitoring employee use for a time period, then blocking non-work sites accordingly.4 That said, when using this tactic, it's important to be respectful of employee privacy and rights; infringing on either can have a negative impact on morale that far outweighs the benefits of reducing misuse. At the very least, inform your employees about how they are being monitored and take measures to secure buy in. There's no need to turn into Big Brother! Besides, sometimes just being aware of monitoring can cut down on misuse, even before the blocking happens.

Tip #3: Recognize the Difference Between Misuse and Addiction

There is a big difference between your average or even severe case of internet misuse, and a case of internet addiction. Both require HR management but with different approaches. Internet misuse is a widespread and serious problem, costing employers billions in productivity annually, 5 ramping up network expenses, and contributing significantly to disciplinary actions and termination.6 The latter is a serious health condition that qualifies under ADA. If you suspect an employee is struggling with an internet addiction, proceed with the same caution as you would with any other addiction.7

1 Griffiths, Mark. "Internet abuse and internet addiction in the workplace." Journal of Workplace Learning 22.7 (2010): 463-472.
2 Griffiths, M.D. (2004), “Internet abuse and addiction in the workplace – issues and concerns for employers”, in Anandarajan, M. (Ed.), Personal Web Usage in the Workplace: A Guide to Effective Human Resource Management, Idea Publishing, Hershey, PA, pp. 230-45.
3 Young, K. (1999), “Internet addiction: evaluation and treatment”, Student British Medical Journal, ol. 7, pp. 351-2.
4 Mirchandani, D. and Motwani, J. (2003), “Reducing internet abuse in the workplace”, SAM Advanced Management Journal, Vol. 68, pp. 22-7.
5 Stewart, F. (2000). “Internet Acceptable Use Policies: Navigating the Management, Legal, and Technical Issues.” Information Systems Security, Volume Nine, Number Three, 46-53
6 Websense Inc, (2000). “Survey on Internet Misuse in the Workplace.” March 2000, 1-6.
7 Americans with Disabilities Act. Internet Addiction, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Employment, GPSolo Magazine, Vol.32, No. 3 (May/June 2015).